Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird is one of the first great early-2000s period pieces that uses specific pop culture from the time to articulate the themes of the story.
In one of the first scenes of Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan says, with perfect youthful exasperation, “I want to go where culture is, like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.”
Lady Bird perceives her home in Sacramento, California, as devoid of the kind of culture she desires. This fuels her desire to leave and, as a result, negatively impacts her relationships and decisions
Rather than corroborate Lady Bird’s feeling that Sacramento is a place devoid of culture, the film suffuses several elements of popular culture in the story. These elements not only contradict Lady Bird’s feelings about her hometown, but they align with the film’s thematic elements as well, revealing more depth in the characters and the story itself.
‘The Grapes of Wrath’
The scene in which Lady Bird expresses her desire to “go where culture is” is the very same where we see her in a car driving through the California desert with her mother listening to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on tape.
She and her mother listen and cry together. It’s a moving scene that subtly draws a through line from Steinbeck’s California all the way to present day. Seconds after the tape finishes, Lady Bird moves to turn on the radio, refusing her mother’s request to sit and consider the story they just heard.
The movie does not so much draw a parallel between the two stories, but rather uses them to demonstrate their divergent attitudes. In The Grapes of Wrath, California holds the promise of a brighter future. In Lady Bird, California is the nest that our protagonist seeks to fly away from.
In using The Grapes of Wrath so early in the movie, Gerwig successfully defines the paradox at the heart of Lady Bird. This is a story of someone that desperately wants to leave home to seek out more, yet she is entirely closed off to the very opportunities and experiences that surround her. As she stubbornly seeks to find a way to leave home, she rejects what Sacramento might have to offer.
‘Merrily We Roll Along’
Lady Bird uses the classic Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along as a meaningful backdrop for much of the film. After Sister Sarah Joan recommends Lady Bird audition for the school music, she signs up with her best friend Julie. Lady Bird ends up getting cast in a small role, while Julie and Danny, the boy that Lady Bird is interested in, get cast as the leads.
Despite sticking with the musical, Lady Bird is depicted as rather apathetic about the whole ordeal. She succeeds in getting closer to Danny, but the musical itself does not interest her much. For a character so interested in seeking out culture, she is remarkably unconcerned with the musical itself. This is, of course, significant considering the story the musical tells.
Merrily We Roll Along is about a successful composer, Franklin Shepard, and two of his estranged friends that he lost on his way to the top. The musical begins at the present and moves backwards, showing the highs and lows of Shepard’s life – both personally and professionally.
Like so much of the pop culture that Gerwig employs in Lady Bird, Merrily We Roll Along is thematically resonant to story itself. Lady Bird is so intent on leaving Sacramento in search more that she disregards the people in her life and the experiences already available to her.
As a result, a rift grows in her friendship with Julie, she pursues relationships and friendships with people that are rather disinterested in her, and she continuously butts heads with her mother leading to greater and more serious consequences.
Dave Matthews Band
In one of the best moments of the film, “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band comes on the radio as Lady Bird rides in the car with Kyle and two of his friends. Kyle and company groan in response, but after a moment of quiet contemplation, Lady Bird says she likes the song.
In the context of the movie, this is a significant moment that marks Lady Bird’s refusal to make personal concessions for the sake of people who don’t care about her. That this moment comes in response to a Dave Matthews Band song aligns with the film’s sharp use of pop culture.
Gerwig doesn’t choose a song that’s considered cool or trendy, but rather a song that is widely recognizable and generally considered pretty lame. Yet to a teenager struggling to find a place in the world alongside people that care, there’s an appeal in the genuine earnestness of this Dave Matthews Band song.
“Crash Into Me” is a song composed mostly of platitudes. Phrases like “Lost for you, I’m so lost, for you” and “I’m bare boned, and crazy for you” lead into choruses that don’t say much other than, “Crash into me, and I come into you.” Nevertheless, there is a certain poeticism in the contrast between the song’s simplicity and how meaningful it is in the context of the film.
This is genius of how Gerwig uses pop culture in Lady Bird. There’s nothing ostentatious about a Dave Matthews Band song, nothing glamorous about the production of Merrily We Roll Along, nothing pretentious about listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape.
Yet these elements are integrated into the story with grace and, as a result, are able to take on a brand new meaning while informing the story in a really meaningful way.
‘A People’s History of the United States’
Howard Zinn’s 1980 non-fiction book A People’s History of the United States is used as a defining characteristic for one of Lady Bird’s romantic interests in the film. Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet, is at times mysterious and quietly charming, at other times blunt and inconsiderate, but he is almost always seen carrying or reading A People’s History of the United States.
The inclusion of the book is a sly nod at the film’s inclusion of politics and the characters’ political engagement, or lack thereof. Lady Bird seems rather disinterested in or disengaged from politics. We see her watching news coverage of the war in Iraq, but she does not discuss it. Her parents struggle financially in the midst of a weakening economy, but Lady Bird feigns wealth whenever she can.
Kyle is an apt foil for Lady Bird’s stance on politics. Unlike Lady Bird, Kyle is portrayed as inordinately focused on politics, signaled by his close proximity to Zinn’s book at all times. The book helps to mark Kyle’s outsider status, which no doubt contributes to Lady Bird’s attraction to him.
Ultimately, however, it’s Kyle’s very preoccupation with politics and outsider status that drives a wedge between them. After losing her virginity to him, Lady Bird expresses dissatisfaction with the experience. Kyle responds by arguing that sex isn’t that important in the grand scheme of the universe, bringing up the number of civilians killed so far in the Iraq War. Lady Bird responds, “It’s not all war,” as Kyle moves across the bed and picks up A People’s History of the United States yet again.
The very first frame of the film displays a quote from author Joan Didion set against a black screen. It reads: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
This is the perfect introductory remark for the film, immediately establishing the film’s keen awareness for how the film’s setting informs the story and characters. That the film chooses to make that statement through the use of a quote from one of the most popular and prolific writers of our time is perfectly in line with how the film uses pop culture to reveal the story’s more profound elements.
This quote is even more resonant considering the fact that Gerwig goes as far as to show us just what Christmas in Sacramento really looks like. We see Lady Bird next to the tree on Christmas morning alongside her parents, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. It’s a humble Christmas without extravagant gifts or, as Didion put it, California hedonism.
Too often, elements of pop culture are used in movies for nothing more than a lazy gimmick or cheap laugh. Lady Bird, however, epitomizes how the inclusion of pop culture can actually enhance a story. The bold choice to open the film with a Joan Didion quote reflects the careful consideration that went into the deciding what to include.
More broadly, the Didion quote is a part of a larger tapestry of pop culture in Lady Bird that provide the film with a greater depth and stronger foundation. These elements not only help articulate the story’s themes to the audience, but also help to reveal the depth of these characters and the world in which they live. It’s a uniquely successful technique that proves Greta Gerwig’s staggering directorial talent.